Sara-Jane Dunn - Scientist

Sara-Jane Dunn

What made you decide to apply for a PostDoc position at MSRC?
I was attracted to a postdoc position here by the work being carried out by the Computational Science lab. I could see that there was a focus on how to move from the purely academic towards having a real impact on interesting and important problems in biology and ecology. On top of this, it struck me that, given the convergence of Computer Science and biology, Microsoft had recognised a niche in which it could lead problem-solving with few, if any, industrial competitors. I thought it would be great to be a part of that, and to move on to pastures new from my PhD - changing city and research focus.

What opportunities do you think being a PostDoc at Microsoft provides?
Obviously, you have the opportunity to work at the interface of industry and academia. So from a purely tactical perspective as a young researcher planning your career, you can dip your toe in the industrial waters and decide whether you fancy a proper swim. Like many great institutions, you are surrounded by very, very clever people, and the environment here is collaborative and stimulating. (I also suspect, though I’d probably break under duress, that the coffee might be a bit better here than at a University...)

What was it about your PostDoc that made you want to apply for a permanent position?
It was realising that this environment fit my personality and my career aspirations, and I really, really didn’t want to leave... I very much wanted to continue research within the Computational Sciences lab, given our agenda and research approach and the people I got to work with. I felt very lucky to be given the opportunity as a PostDoc, and naturally even luckier to have been offered a permanent role.

What’s the difference between being a PostDoc and a full time researcher?
For me, it is being able to take a much longer-term view of your research. To be able to think about five, not one, year plans. This is vital in the area that I work in, where solutions aren’t going to land in our laps tomorrow. I’ve yet to see this bear out over a long time period, but two and a half months into the job (!), I feel that there is a greater sense of responsibility and maturity in the position. At the minute, I’m grateful to the rest of the group, my mentor and the head of our lab for inspiration and guidance as I square up to the role.

What advice would you have for people who are making decisions about their research career?
I think, firstly, you have to work in a lab or group that does work that fascinates and motivates you. This is true whether it’s an industrial or academic environment. So don’t go simply for the big name or history of an institution, but do try to work with the best people in your field. This will be the most rewarding. If you can’t get a position in the lab you’d most like to work in, then try to collaborate with them.

Secondly, I’d say to talk to people. I don’t just mean network at conferences, though this is good advice, but I also know more than one chaired Professor whose career path was influenced by other academics they met down at the pub. Find out about other people’s research and where they work; peer-to-peer contact will be the most honest and useful feedback you will get.

Thirdly, I’d remind people to factor in their personality and what they want from life outside work – research is a difficult career path that is driven by the assumption that you should do it for the love of it, forsaking all else. This is not an ideology unique to research, but academia is one of its most guilty proponents. Don’t end up in an environment or city you hate, with no social life to speak of, churning out papers that no one wants to write, and certainly no one wants to read. Given the intellectual nature of the job, you’ll end up feeling disillusioned, unsuccessful and, probably, stupid (which is currency in what we do). The best kind of work is one that fits seamlessly into your life, and makes sense with you as a person.